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Curtis Hinsley, on: The Future of America
Q: At this point in history, what did the West represent to America?|
CH: I think that the West represented a new start, it represented the future.
The Civil War, to some degree, had been fought over the future of the West.
Whether the western half of the continent would be settled as slave territory
or as free territory. It was sort of the prize in the Civil War,
demographically speaking. It was also, and had always been, the West had
always been the future of America. The time and space axis of the American
consciousness were always conflated, they were always confused, so that space
became time, and the West became the future. And, therefore after the Civil
War, with the issue of slavery and Union, presumably settled, at great cost,
the West and the future became possible. And, in a way, what we see Powell
doing, beginning with his Colorado explorations and later with irrigation
survey, is trying to define what that West will be, what that future will be --
how we will come to know the West. And, one of the courageous things about
Powell, is the fact that he was brave enough to ask the question, not just what
will we do with the West, but how will we know the West, how will we know this
country. And, isn't it necessary to know this country firmly and certainly and
for sure, before we tread upon it, before we turn it to our purposes.
Shouldn't we be doing this with a firm knowledge or what the West is, what the
country is, what the resources are, and what are the laws that rule this part
of this wonderful, beautiful, tender, delicate part of the world.
Q: He's got this idea of going down the Colorado. He goes in 1868, but he's
not a known quantity there, what was he up against when he hit Washington.
CH: Henry Adams, in his autobiography, writes about the immediate post-Civil
War years under President Grant as this time of just disorganization and mad
lobbying in Washington. The war's over, the West is available, so it seems,
and there are suddenly all these groups, all these interests, both individual
and corporate, that are all trying to scramble for favors, for special rights,
privileges, to make something, get something. Now Powell comes in the midst of
all this and he's not looking for money, for personal gain. He's looking for
money for knowledge, for a scientific exploration. He has a couple of things
going for him. First, throughout the decade of the 1850's, before the war
interrupted the process, there had been a series of surveys through this
Southwest, in particular, primarily to locate good routes for railroad
development. So, Washington was not unaware, and there had been precedence for
requests for exploration. That was not anything. Secondly, there was one very
important institution in Washington that did help individuals and that was the
Smithsonian Institution, under Joseph Henry. By 1868, the Smithsonian had
been in place for twenty-two years and Henry had been supporting all kinds of
researchers throughout the country, North and South and Midwest. He had an
enormous correspondence with, he and his Secretary, Spencer Baird had an
enormous correspondence with individuals all over the country, who wanted a
favor for this, wanted a piece of equipment for that, wanted a barometer to
take measurements for the weather conditions in their local area or whatever.
There were all these things. So, that an individual of Powell's nature, with
his dynamism and his willingness to come to Washington, all the way from
Illinois or Wisconsin, that was not entirely unexpected or new. And could be
quite impressive. It's not surprisingly that one of the key area, key
institutions that helps him is the Smithsonian. That was, in a sense, what
Joseph Henry felt he was there for, to enable young Americans to experience
science for themselves. Powell in a sense was exactly what Henry thought the
Smithsonian should be promoting.
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